Helen Cresswell writes about EILEEN COLWELL
`Stories are still a main delight, Man being still a child.’
John Masefield wrote this in So Long to Learn. He was one of my childhood, heroes, but I had not read this book until Eileen Colwell lent it to me. It is an account of the poet’s life-long passion for story and, above all, storytelling, which he regarded as the oldest and most honourable of arts. He even (rare, this, for a published and best-selling writer) half deplored the advent of printing. Until then story had been a living, fluid thing; cold print fixed it, like a fly in amber. Worse, it made the storyteller self conscious, tempted to attach more importance to his own style than to the story itself.
Masefield, with the help of Gilbert Murray and others, established the Oxford Recitations, an annual festival of the spoken word, and he discovered – naturally – Eileen Colwell.
The borrowed copy of So Long to Learnis personally inscribed for Eileen and this, with other books and over 100 letters, is among her most prized possessions. John Masefield heard of her gifts as a storyteller and wrote to ask if he might come and hear her. He would sit in the back row, he said, and promised not to talk or be naughty. And so he did, beginning a friendship that lasted till his death.
Eileen would visit him at his home near Oxford, and she remembers his upright bearing, white hair and keen blue eyes. She would sit by him on a stool, and as the pair talked stories, heads bent together, Masefield’s wife, who was very deaf, would hover anxiously, now and then darting forward to say to heedless ears, ‘Now, John, you’ve had enough!’ When it came to talk about storytelling neither John Masefield nor Eileen Colwell could ever have enough. And the poet, from that first time he heard her, recognised Eileen as a master of her art. When he was unable to attend the John Masefield Storytelling Festival in Canada it was Eileen he sent in his place, and with her a personal message for her to read on his behalf. Every year on her birthday he would send a cake specially ordered from Devonshire.
I know all this because I have been visiting Eileen recently at her home in Loughborough. By a cruel irony she has almost lost her sight, and the books she loves so much are now forever closed to her. Even the Talking Books which are such a godsend to the blind are a mixed pleasure for her.
‘They tend to irritate me rather.’
Of course they do. The words were written for print, not for telling. How they must grate, however sensitively read, on that impeccable ear! Any reader knows that there are problems in listening to the uncut text of a book. Reading is an intensely personal and mysterious process, it includes skipping or glancing, a dwelling on certain phrases and passages. There is a sense in which you cannot read a book for someone any more than you can eat a meal for them.
And Eileen Colwell is no ordinary reader. She has spent a lifetime picking out the bones of a good story from a mess of verbiage. The onward flow and rhythm of story is an instinct, an extra sense she has. No one who has ever heard her storytelling or seen the rapt attention of her listeners can doubt that.
How did it all begin, one wonders, how did she come to recognise her rare gift? Like all children she loved to hear stories, but unlike most she also loved to tell them. The third of four children, she remembers going hand in hand with her younger sister, Vera, on expeditions deep into the countryside surrounding their home. As they went Eileen would tell stories – and that, no doubt, not simply to keep her little sister docile, but for the sheer joy of the telling.
It was when Eileen went to the splendid public library at Hendon that her work really began. She built up, almost from scratch, a library for children. Even then, at 23, she was no ordinary librarian, and from early photographs one can detect a rare poise, a determined glint in her eye. Having fought for her library, she set about making it an irresistible attraction for her young readers. She involved them, for instance, in the day-to-day running of the library, issuing and stamping books, checking the shelves. And she told stories.
‘It’s my library, and I’ll read if I want to!’ one can almost hear her saying. At her previous library in Bolton storytelling was frowned upon – as it still is, in some quarters, by what Masefield witheringly described as the ‘half-baked’. Eileen has marked in pencil this passage in her copy of So Long to Learn:
‘Even a very little joy is worth having in a world such as this, at this time.
‘In any case the children to whom lovely stories are as necessary as pure air, would be glad of them, and having heard (or watched) such tellings, would try to do something of the sort for themselves, and discover much in the attempt.’
Eileen was in Hendon during the war years. She has photographs of children in short trousers, and pixie hoods, sitting entranced in the blacked-out library.
‘There was nothing else for them,’ she says. ‘It was all they had.’
All! Today’s children have sports centres, television, computers and video games. They are starved of stories – and those such as they do meet are in danger of having been prescribed for them by government.
‘Which are your favourite stories?’ I ask, remembering for a moment that I am here not solely for my own enjoyment, but to gather material for this piece.
There are so many – Wanda Gaag’s ‘Gone is Gone’, Eleanor Farjeon’s ‘Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep’, Haldane’s ‘My Friend Mr Leaky’ and ‘The Magic Umbrella’.
This last was by Rose Fyleman, but ended up being by Eileen Colwell and assorted children. It grew and changed in the re-telling, even its ending changed. Eileen and the children changed it between them.
That is the joy of being a storyteller. One does not sit alone with a blank sheet of paper writing stories that in some distant future may be read and shared by others. As storyteller, you and your story are one, and you are here, now. Like the Ancient Mariner you must rivet your audience, fix them with your glittering eye. And the Ancient Mariner was only trying to catch the attention of a wedding guest, not a disparate bunch of fidgeting children who nowadays, we are told, have an attention span drastically reduced by the fast-moving films and videos they watch. Children, in any case, have always had a notoriously low boredom threshold.
But Eileen knows how to hook them, here, now. And having hooked them she can play them for five, ten, fifteen minutes and still have them clamouring for more. She can make them believe the impossible without benefit of Spielberg special effects. There can be few more unlikely tales than that of ‘My Friend Mr Leaky’, which features a servant who is an octopus. After one telling a group of boys came to Eileen and asked for Haldane’s address in London. They wanted to write to him and request a visit to meet his octopus. When she told the story of a ghost who had been frozen, and then sent to a Deep Freeze Warehouse in London for storage, there were demands for the telephone number of this establishment – a suitable destination for a school visit, perhaps?
There are, of course, pitfalls, as anyone who visits schools will know. My own personal nightmare scenario was a row of infants sitting at the front, each with a taut, over-inflated balloon, on which tiny fingers and nails were restlessly rubbing and scratching. Eileen once paused for dramatic effect, and in the expectant silence one infant solemnly piped up ‘When my auntie came to stay with me she fell out of bed in the middle of the night’.
They do not have this kind of thing to contend with at the Royal Court or the National.
Eileen wanted to read ‘Elsie Piddock’ at an International Conference of Storytelling in America. She rang Eleanor Farjeon to ask permission, and received an invitation to visit her.
And so Eileen went to Hampstead, to the converted stables with the little blue door, and found Eleanor Farjeon living in the loft among sagging furniture and piles of books. She had tea with her, and the talk was so fascinating it did not matter that the milk jug was thick with dust. So began another friendship.
Soon Eileen’s influence and reputation was reaching far beyond Hendon. She wrote articles, spoke at conferences, and for many years was the unofficial, unpaid representative of Great Britain on the international Hans Andersen Award, travelling to meetings on the continent at her own expense. Her Puffin anthologies of stories have sold over a million copies. She also produced four volumes of A Storyteller’s Choice – an invaluable guide for any storyteller, amateur or professional. These books were published by The Bodley Head but are unbelievably, since the Random House takeover, out-of-print.
Perhaps the time is now ripe for their reprinting. There’s a slow but definite revival of the art of storytelling. In Nottinghamshire, where I live, children’s librarians are being trained in it. In June there was the inaugural Conference of the Society of Storytellers, in Birmingham. Eileen has been approached by the organisers, by a younger generation of storytellers who know there is a master in their midst and they had better learn what they can from her.
One of them has already visited her. He was much influenced as a child, he says, by Masefield’s Midnight Folk. Sonow he will sit at her feet just as she sat at Masefield’s, and there will be eager, endless discussion of stories and the secrets of telling them. Full circle.
Eileen Colwell’s anthologies from Puffin:
Bad Boys, 0 14 030530 0, £3.50
High Days and Holidays, 0 14 032300 7, £2.99
Tell Me a Story, 0 14 030159 3, £2.99
Tell Me Another Story, 0 14 030210 7, £3.99
Time for a Story, 0 14 030282 4, £2.99
More Stories to Tell, 0 14 031062 2, £2.99
From Viking in October this year will come two further collections: Cats in a Basket and Wagging Tales.
John Masefield’s So Long to Learn: Chapters of an Autobiography was published in 1952 by Heinemann. Midnight Folk (also from Heinemann) was published in 1927. For information on the Society for Storytelling contact Joan Jones at 8 Bert Allen Drive, Old Leake, Boston, Lines PE22 9LG.
Helen Cresswell has written over 80 hooks for children. Her latest, Posy Bates and the Bag Lady, is published by The Bodley Head (0 370 31764 5) at £7.99.